Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Anwar Ibrahim: chameleon or just a good communicator?

The Economist's Banyan column has penned a rather critical profile of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, which suggests that he is something of a chameleon figure, having undergone a remarkable transition from Islamist student leader to acolyte of the Mahathir regime before his latest re-invention as an opposition icon.

I must say that when Anwar addressed the Foreign Correspondents Association in Singapore in May, I was struck by a similar feeling that Anwar was trying too hard to be all things to all men. His performance was very slick, perhaps too slick, and left me feeling slightly uneasy.

I doubt, for example, that he would have made jokes about which Hollywood celebrities he finds attractive if he had been addressing a group of activists from PAS, the Islamic party that is a key ally in Anwar's opposition alliance, rather than a meeting of mostly Western journalists.

When I raised my concerns about Anwar's smooth-talking style with a Malaysian friend who is a big supporter, she insisted that I was being unfair and that Anwar should not be penalised for having the ablitity to communicate with such a wide range of audiences. His message, that Malaysia needs to embrace democratic, multi-ethnic politics without forgetting the need to help the poor Malay majority, stayed the same even if the manner of delivery differed depending on who he was talking to, she said.

The Economist piece, which differs markedly in its tone from the usual fawning accounts of Anwar produced in the West (see Ian Buruma's recent love-in in The New Yorker), has sparked quite a bit of interest in the Malaysian blogosphere (see here, here, and here, for example).


  1. A bit like Xanana Gusmao, then?

  2. Not too disimilar, I guess. You can argue that both men have been forced to adapt to changing circumstances in their countries and have demonstrated a real ability to carve out a role for themselves whatever the underlying situation.

    I'm hoping to travel to Timor-Leste in the next couple of months so I should know more then.

  3. Unlike you, I haven't seen Anwar in action. But I don't see how Anwar's "slickness" and readiness to say different things to different audiences is at odds with the way other successful politicians behave.

    In any given day, politicians will continually adjust their style and utterances as they deeal with parliamentary and cabinet colleagues, senior officials, journalists and members of the public.

  4. Thanks for your comments Peter.

    I agree that all modern politicians are under pressure to be all things to all men.

    The question marks over Anwar arise because he has re-invented himself so dramatically so many times in a relatively short period.

    If he is to keep his extremely loose coalition together and stand a chance of winning power, I feel he will need to demonstrate more substance in the longer term.

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